As I spent a recent day with a human rights activist from halfway around the world, I kept thinking back to my time at North Shore High School in Glen Head.
The young woman, Yasmin Ullah, was a refugee from Myanmar, also known as Burma. On the surface, Yasmin and I are about as different as possible. She grew up in Southeast Asia, in a country that persecuted her because of her ethnicity and her Muslim religion. When she was 3 years old, her family was forced to flee their home in Myanmar. I grew up Jewish in a prosperous part of Long Island, amid a community that celebrated my faith.
Yasmin and I were in Washington, D.C., meeting with officials to discuss the genocide in Myanmar. I reflected on my days at North Shore High School because that’s when I started asking questions about my family’s history. I learned that my maternal grandparents were forced to flee their home in Austria in the late 1930s as the Nazis persecuted Jewish people. My relatives went to the Dominican Republic because the United States refused to allow them in. Eventually, they moved to Spanish Harlem, then settled in Nassau County.
More than 700,000 people were displaced into neighboring Bangladesh. Working for human rights organizations for several years, I’ve met with Rohingya people in Bangladesh, in the world’s largest refugee camp — and in Myanmar, including in a bleak, ghettoized neighborhood named Aung Mingalar.
I have had the honor of working with individuals like Yasmin, whose nonprofit Rohingya Human Rights Network speaks out on behalf of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities. They demand a safe return to Myanmar as well as restoration of their basic citizenship rights, which have been stripped from the Rohingya people over generations by Myanmar. They call for a safe return to their homeland; they demand that Burmese military generals be held accountable for their crimes. Tragically, the rest of the world mostly stays silent.
What can Long Island residents do from 8,000 miles away? Starting today, we each can do our part for those persecuted because of their religion and ethnicity. We can contact Long Island’s political leaders, along with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer and other representatives in Washington and urge them to push legislation through. The U.S. Congress needs to pass legislation — already written — to sanction Burmese military officials responsible for the atrocities, provide support for justice and increase aid to ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
Our synagogues, mosques, and churches can demand the Trump administration and Congress listen to voices from Myanmar and put America’s moral weight behind the pursuit of justice.
I remember my teenage years, learning about the terrors that my grandparents and their neighbors suffered in Europe because they were Jewish. In a time when “never again” has lost its resonance for some, all of us can and must stand up to genocide against any people, in any part of the world.
Jeffrey Stein is a program officer for American Jewish World Service, a human rights group.